Advocacy of a Global Ethic
N. R. Krishnan
The Hindu, September 7, 2004

Peter Singer, an American liberal and a philosopher teaches bioethics at Princeton University. In the space of six tightly argued chapters, he advances the thesis that the independent sovereign state with its well-defined political boundaries, laws and institutions has become more or less a mere cartographic entity today.

Such has been the sweep of forces like trade, foreign aid, global environmental concerns and human rights that states with and without their express consent are moving, albeit haltingly, towards the political philosopher's vision of one world. That goal is still far away but, as the author asserts rightly, the definitive first steps have already been taken.

Need for ethics

What distresses him, however, is that the vessel of globalisation is yet to find its ethical rudder in the absence of which it is buffetted by gales of self-interest, indifference, opportunism and worst of all blatant arrogance on the part of the developed world towards the developing countries.

In the absence of an ethical underpinning globalisation has become an opportunity for a new form of colonialism.

Singer picks on the U.S. as being particularly guilty of this derisive attitude as evidenced by its approach to issues like global warming, human rights violations, unilateralism in trade relations and adoption of double standards in its efforts to aid the underprivileged at home and the starving millions in the rest of the globe.

The U.S.' policies are guided more by national self-interest than global altruism. Did not General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs, quote with approval the words of Bismarck that all the Balkans were not worth the bones of one of his soldiers?

On global warming

The phenomenon of global warming is a grim reality and its anticipated consequences even within this century are frightful. The U.S. is the largest contributor to this phenomenon through its greenhouse gas emissions, but citing adverse impact on its economy, has been stalling the ratification of the Kyoto protocol, which seeks to limit such emissions to certain acceptable levels over the period 2008-12.

The U.S. example has encouraged many others to follow suit with the result the protocol has yet to come into effect.

Dwelling on international trade relations, Singer though appreciative of the setting up of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) laments over its discernible tilt towards free trade at the expense of fair trade. Fair trade has several dimensions. High tariff walls and hurdles of environmental and labour standards erected by some of the rich members of the WTO to ward off imports from poor countries come to one's mind easily.

Fair versus free trade

What is less noticed is the ambivalence of the rich in dealing with countries with a poor record of human rights. Thus, the U.S.-China bilateral trade flourishes, "blood diamonds" mined in Rwanda find ready buyers in the West and military dictatorships like Nigeria earn more than six billion dollars a year from oil exports. Trade, in the scheme of the WTO, is neutral to human rights a pity.

Singer questions the legitimacy of any country wedded to democracy and human freedom doing business with countries ruled by governments that are corrupt and despotic.

Taking the issue further, he lays down the proposition that rulers who came to power against the democratic will of their people have no right to dispose of their country's national resources be it oil, minerals or timber.

To strengthen democracy

His prescription to strengthen democracy is to reform the U.N. and its trade wings like the WTO to reflect the political and economic value of their membership.

In support of his contention, he points to the progressive democratisation in the countries of Eastern Europe as they move to join the European Union.


The piece de resistance of the book is its advocacy of a moral and ethical need for outside intervention in the internal affairs of a nation riven by civil war or large-scale violation of human rights. He urges military intervention under the aegis of the U.N. and economic intervention through the WTO.

Again, he notes with sadness the double standards adopted by the powerful in choosing to intervene or not to intervene depending on their self-interest.

He concludes forcefully, "National sovereignty has no intrinsic moral weight. The limits of the state's ability and willingness to protect its people are also the limits of its sovereignty... if it is at all possible to prevent such atrocities, they should be prevented."

On going through the book one recalls the emphasis placed on good governance at the Johannesburg Summit in 2002. One World is a thought-provoking book, a book to be chewed and digested.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Advocacy of a Global Ethic', by N. R. Krishnan